Q&A with Amy Gutmann

In mid-summer of 2011, the rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling—which Congress had done without fanfare 70 times before—was heating up.

Newsweek and Daily Beast senior columnist John Avlon described it this way: “A cataclysmic game of chicken. Negotiating with a gun to your head. A ‘Thelma & Louise’-style full throttle off a cliff.”

The debate? Some politicians were speaking out against raising the debt ceiling, and called for cuts in government spending as a way to address the country’s deficit and long-term debt. Others advocated for raising the debt ceiling, as well as for closing loopholes in the tax code as a way to raise revenue.

Political experts envisioned a bipartisan compromise. But the two sides refused to meet somewhere in the middle.


Ultimately, on July 31, a less-than-ideal agreement was reached. President Barack Obama signed into law the Budget Control Act, which, among other things, created a “super committee” of House and Senate members to recommend ways to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over a decade. But even the members of the super committee couldn’t agree and were unable to issue recommendations by the Nov. 23, 2011 deadline.

Gridlock in Washington is not a new occurrence. But the degree to which it has frozen Congress is significant. Moderate members of Congress, including Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, are retiring because politicians have become hard-line partisans, making governing difficult. Many seemingly uncontroversial pieces of legislation need to overcome a filibuster to get through the Senate. Some politicians pledge loyalty to extreme, uncompromising positions, no matter the effect on crafting and passing legislation.      

Is compromise doomed in this polarized political climate?

To be sure, crafting compromise is challenging, says Penn President Amy Gutmann, co-author of the new book “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It” (published by Princeton University Press) with Harvard political science professor Dennis Thompson. Not only is there increased political polarization and a copious amount of money influencing the political process, but, Gutmann and Thompson contend, we live in “an era characterized by the permanent campaign.” The result is that members of Congress pitch their sound bites to the news shows, and stand firm on positions, giving themselves virtually no wiggle room when the work of governing begins. This intransigence from politicians favors the status quo, the authors write, and gets in the way of positive change.

In contrast, good government calls for politicians to respect their opponents and seize opportunities to compromise in order to move the country forward.

“There is no easy way out of this predicament—in part because the tension between campaigning and governing is built into the democratic process itself,” Gutmann and Thompson wrote in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed about compromise.

The Current sat down with Gutmann to discuss her new book, compromise in the current political climate, why we really need compromise in American politics, and why she hopes voters will begin to elect politicians who will take the risks that true compromise requires.

Q. Why did you feel compelled to write this book now?
A. Like many Americans, I’ve been impressed by how much and how long campaigning is lasting in our society—or I should say, we’ve been unimpressed by the domination of campaigning in our political system. And I really felt compelled, given my abiding interest in how democracy works, to write something about this. So, I’ve had a long interest in figuring out the following puzzle: How is it that people who deeply disagree in a very large country can come together and make laws that govern the country? That’s the puzzle of democracy.
And what I’ve been impressed and disturbed by, as so many Americans have been, is the inability of the U. S. Congress, as a prime example, to govern. The Congress has been almost endlessly campaigning. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every day is effectively election day, so there’s been a tremendous amount of campaigning, very little governing, and I want to say something about why that is and what we might do about it.

Q. Let’s talk a bit about that and how governing works in what you call ‘the era of the permanent campaign.’
A. When every day is effectively election day, there is a huge incentive for politicians to stand tenaciously on principle and to demonize their opponents. We call that ‘the uncompromising mindset.’ Now, in contrast to that, what governing requires is what we call ‘principled prudence,’ that you use your principles as guideposts rather than as roadblocks.
They’re guideposts to signal where you want to go, but you figure out how you can actually start moving in that direction by respecting your opponents. So principled prudence and mutual respect characterize the compromising mindset. Now this would be a very easy problem to solve if democracy were simply governing, but democracy consists of campaigning and governing, and therefore it’s truly a difficult problem, even under the best of circumstances. What you want is politicians who campaign by standing tenaciously on a principle, declaring how they differ dramatically from their opponents, and then when the election is over, they sit down with their opponents and they craft compromises. That’s what happens most of the time when American democracy is working well.

The problem and the promise is that you have to compromise.”

Q. In your book, you have two great examples of politicians sitting down and crafting compromises. One is the Tax Reform Act of 1986 under President Reagan and the other is health care reform in 2010 under President Obama. I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about the circumstances that made those compromises possible.
A. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the health reform act, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, you might call them a tale of two compromises. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from comparing these two compromises. The Tax Reform Act under Reagan—Reagan, a very strong partisan, and Tip O’Neill, speaker of the house, a very strong partisan of the other party, they crafted a compromise with [Democratic Congressman] Dan Rostenkowski, [Republican Senator] Bob Packwood, and [Democratic Senator] Bill Bradley, but not because they weren’t partisans. Reagan led what is commonly called ‘The Reagan Revolution.’ Tip O’Neill was a left liberal. So, it isn’t partisanship that is the problem, although a lot of people say [the problem is] strong partisanship. Sure, if everyone were moderates it would be easier.
But the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the single greatest reform of taxation in a century. And it was done because strong partisans were able to sit down together and craft a bipartisan compromise. And because it was a bipartisan compromise—even though, as all classic compromises have, both sides sacrificed something in order to gain something—they believed, rightly so, that they improved on the status quo, from their perspective.
Fast forward to the Affordable Care Act. That was at least as difficult a compromise to reach, and it was reached within only one party. And as a consequence, the sides in the party all gave up something. Some people wanted a single-payer plan, other people didn’t. Some people wanted restrictions on abortion, other people adamantly didn’t. Everybody gave up something to craft this compromise. As hard as it was to create a bipartisan compromise 25 years earlier, it was [equally difficult] to create this compromise within one party.
And what is the consequence of it? The consequence of it [is that] it’s extremely controversial. Most bipartisan compromises are controversial, and then people quickly jump on board because both parties have something at stake. This compromise is even more controversial than anyone imagined it would be at the time. And part of its fate is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of the United States, and many people are wondering if it’s going to be decided on the basis of some strict constitutional reading of the Constitution, or, [on the basis of] what a lot of people, including our own president, are saying is politics—and not pretty politics at that.

Q. Speaking of ‘not pretty politics,’ in the summer of 2011, there was the contentious debt ceiling debate, where a previously uncontroversial issue turned controversial. What are your thoughts about that? What made it such a contentious debate and what led to the eventual 11th-hour bipartisan compromise?
A. The debt ceiling crisis is a very good example of just how difficult compromise has become, because the debt ceiling has been raised over and over and over again in recent history and yet, this time, it went to the brink of a crisis. There was finally a bipartisan deal and by many accounts, the deal kicked the can down the road. Let’s start with the bipartisan deal, because there’s one lesson to be learned from it. … 
It’s not a coincidence that the way the compromise ultimately was crafted was having [Vice President] Joe Biden and [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell sit down together and make a deal. The reason it’s not a coincidence is they have a long-standing relationship. Relationships really matter. The kind of mutual trust and mutual respect that grows over time by working in an institution together can help. It can help more if both sides have what I call the ‘compromising mindset,’ and really want to compromise. The reason why this was less than a successful compromise—it was successful in that it averted the crisis, but it was less successful as a compromise that anybody really admires—is it went to the brink of the crisis and it kicked the can down the road.
Now, a lot of people will say the problem is that the country is tremendously polarized, and politicians do what their voters want them to do, what their constituents want them to do.
Well, here’s the really fascinating fact: Even though Tea Party candidates were elected by a constituency that was inspired by [the assertion], ‘We will not compromise our principles, no new taxes,’ when polls were taken as the crisis became clear, and clearly imminent, even a majority of Tea Party supporters said, in response to very clear questions, that they wanted their elected representatives who agreed most with them to compromise in order to avert the crisis. And yet, there were many, many members of Congress who still voted against the compromise.

Q. You provide such a great example, taken from an interview with Speaker of the House John Boehner, shortly after he was first elected to that position, with Lesley Stahl from ‘60 Minutes,’ where he literally rejects the word ‘compromise.’ I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that mindset, and how mindsets affect the likelihood of compromise.
A. John Boehner spoke for a lot of politicians when he responded to Lesley Stahl’s question on ’60 Minutes.’ Lesley Stahl asked, ‘Don’t you have to compromise?’ And John Boehner said, ‘I reject the word.’ Literally.
What that reflects really vividly is what we call the ‘uncompromising mindset’—you stand tenaciously on principle and you mistrust your opponents, and what John Boehner said when pressed by Lesley Stahl is, ‘We want to find common ground.’
Now, that’s a very common pitch of politicians, and one of the reasons we wanted to write this book was to help educate people to know what the standard moves of politicians are and how seriously you should take them at their word. So, why does he say, ‘We want to find common ground?’ Because, who can possibly criticize wanting to find common ground? What ‘common ground’ means is nobody has to sacrifice, you identify areas where you agree, and you move the country forward by finding common ground. Well, it would be good work if you can get it. But, can you get it?
When you have a polarized, or even an unpolarized democracy, people differ in their views, even if [they] agree on the same values. We all want justice and fairness. But people seriously disagree about what justice and fairness entail. And so, what compromise does is it gives all sides something they value. But it requires each side to sacrifice, and if you reject the notion of compromise, let alone reject the word, you’re not going to be able to move the country forward and that’s all the more the case in the landscape of polarized politics. We need compromise even more when our politics are polarized. If you say, ‘Well, it’s just impossible,’ it’s not. We have great evidence that it’s not. [Former Democratic U.S. Senator] Ted Kennedy and [Republican U.S. Senator] Orrin Hatch, extreme partisans, sat down over and over again and crafted compromise. They took risks, short-term risks, but the long-term gain is that they not only succeeded in the narrow sense in politics, but they served the country so well, and we need more politicians who are willing to take those risks in order to do what almost everybody elects politicians to do, which is to help move the country forward, to improve on the status quo, to govern.

Q. It sounds like you’re saying that compromise is always necessary to govern effectively. Would that be a fair statement?
A. Democracy requires compromise. Compromise is difficult. Governing without compromise is impossible. Not everything is a compromise, but most major legislation that moves this country forward is a compromise at its best. At its worst, it’s a capitulation of where one side loses everything to the other and there’s a huge backlash. At its best, what governing in a democracy is, is both sides get something of true value by sacrificing something. But when they’re not grandstanding in politics, they will be happy to admit that it was a good deal, it was a good deal for their partisan side and it was a good deal for the country.

Democracy requires compromise. Compromise is difficult. Governing without compromise is impossible. Not everything is a compromise, but most major legislation that moves this country forward is a compromise at best.”

Q. Let’s talk a bit about some of the reasons why the political landscape looks the way it does. You outline many in the book.
A. There are many reasons why compromise is so difficult today and indeed, if you list all the reasons, you might basically throw up your hands and say, ‘It’s hopeless.’ And one of the reasons we wrote this book is it’s too easy to do that and it’s actually not right, it’s not hopeless.
Some of the reasons we’re in the situation we are have to do with how prevalent campaigning is and how easy it is to campaign all the time. The 24/7 news cycle makes it harder to compromise. Most compromises are not something that is going to excite a talk show host to talk about, whereas somebody yelling, ‘You lie’ to the president, or some Democrat saying the Republicans are the problem—that can excite the juices of the 24/7 news cycle, and [media will] repeat it over and over again. So there’s one part of the problem.
Another part of the problem is there’s an unlimited flow of money into campaigning now. It’s not only the super PACs. That exacerbates it. But as you [saw] with the Republican primary, candidates stay in longer, and there’s more money to juice the machine of campaigning.
Also, filibustering is at a new height in the Senate, so it’s no longer enough to have a majority; you have to have a super-majority to govern. And I can go on and on about the causes.
So why isn’t it hopeless? Compromise is more difficult than it’s been. It’s just gotten more and more difficult because we are in the era of the permanent campaign. So what can you do about it? The most important message of the book, I think, is the need for politicians to adopt the compromising mindset, at least occasionally, to mix the mindsets in order to move the country forward when there’s something important at stake and when they can find partners on the other side. They have to do outreach, and they can make a difference in governing, which after all is the reason for government. It really comes down to—the Beatles got it just about it right in an early uncompromising moment, when they said: you say that it’s the institution, well, you know ... you better free your mind instead.
Most politicians didn’t go into politics because they’ve lived a life where they stand tenaciously on principle and they never make a deal and they never compromise. That is not the typical character who goes into politics. Most politicians know what it’s like to have a compromising mindset. They know that politics is not just principled, it’s pragmatic. The idea is to bring prudence and principles together. The idea is, in a democracy, you have to respect your opponent. You run against them vehemently, but then, when you’re elected, you sit down and craft compromises. Having the compromising mindset, having politicians and voters alike understand ...  that the more we can adopt a compromising mindset before the crisis is imminent, the better we will be governed.

Q. It sounds like you’re quite hopeful.
A. Does it sound that way?
Bill Clinton said at his inaugural address 20 years ago, that there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. I do believe that is true. If you want to call that hopeful, yes, I am hopeful.
Yet, I’m not at all Pollyannaish about this. I don’t think politicians and citizens are going to read ‘The Spirit of Compromise’ and all of a sudden, there’s going to be this new era of compromise. That I do not expect, I wouldn’t predict that. The reason I think there’s cause for hope, however, is that our democracy actually works best—and people say it works best—when there’s compromise. Voters, even quite polarized voters, have indicated how much they disapprove of Congress, and the real challenge is putting the disapproval together with some understanding of what’s needed to change. Now a lot of people, and particularly a lot of political scientists, say, ‘Well, you have to change the institutions first. You have to change the filibuster rule, you have to change gerrymandering, you have to limit money flow into politics.’ And our response to that, which I think is very important to recognize, is that any of those changes would also require compromise. So, there is no magic institutional bullet that will change things without politicians sitting down together and crafting compromises.
Now, if the politicians won’t do it, then ultimately, in a democracy, the hope is that voters will start looking at politicians’ records and voting for those politicians who have a record of being willing and able to compromise.

Q. Do people have to stop thinking of compromise as a terrible thing, as a dirty word?
A. Yes, and most people do not think of compromise as a dirty word. Most people in any survey say they think that politicians need to compromise. But most people in any survey will also say that they think politicians should stick by their principles. And they’re both right. The puzzle is, how do you have politicians who are strong in standing up for their principles but are willing to compromise when compromise is what’s necessary to move in the direction of your principles? We’d never have gotten the Tax Reform Act of 1986 if everybody had held out for everything that their principles demanded. Politicians know that, voters know that, and it is remarkable that even a majority of Tea Party supporters said they would approve of compromise by their own favorite politicians in the face of the debt ceiling crisis, and that’s one extreme of our politics. So, there really is an endemic ability of democracy to compromise, and there’s a great recognition among citizens and politicians alike that this compromise is necessary. It’s just when you get to the particular compromises that people don’t like them—nor should they like them. I don’t want to compromise if I don’t have to.
The problem and the promise is that you have to compromise. And once you recognize that you have to, and once you recognize that if you can mix your standing-on-principle when you’re campaigning with your sitting-down-adopting-a-compromising-mindset when it’s time to govern, then you move government forward. Then the popularity of Congress will increase, the quality of life in this country will increase, and we will be able to do something along the lines of what the Simpson-Bowles commission recommended, which is an outline of a classic, major compromise. And if that moved forward into Congress, it wouldn’t come out the same way Simpson and Bowles outlined it. They would be dissatisfied with some of the ensuing compromise, but they would applaud, as most Americans would, the outcome if it were truly a bipartisan compromise.

Penn President Amy Gutmann - slideshow